A Glasgow Taxi, A Stolen Set of Pipes and a Lucky Coincidence

Around 1975/6 I was building a house in Bridge of Weir in Renfrewshire, a few miles west of Glasgow. To generate money to finance this project I decided to drive a Glasgow taxi for a couple of years as I was told that it was a very well paid occupation at that time if you worked hard.

I sat the topographical test (known among London cabbies as ‘the Knowledge’) and to my amazement I passed it first time. Driving a Glasgow ‘hack’ was both challenging and exhilarating. From picking up drunks in the Gallowgate and taking them to Easterhouse, then taking a family to the airport, there was never a dull moment.

By Tom Johnstone

I drove the taxi night-shift from 6pm to 2am usually, but later at the weekends. During the day I returned to my building work.

To complicate matters, I was a member of the Rolls Royce Pipe Band which had evolved from an amalgamation with the Clan MacRae Society. The Pipe Major was Jim Henderson who was very experienced and a great character, but he left suddenly for family reasons and I was chosen to take over. This was the last thing I needed whilst trying to build a house! 

MacRaeBanner ’19
Ayrshire Bagpipes Nov 2020
shepherd banner ’22
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(To help with the brickwork and blockwork I brought in the late great Eddie McLellan, bandsman and piping tutor extraordinaire, who was an experienced slater/plasterer and brickie. He did a fantastic job.)

Whilst driving the ‘two tons of black scrap’ as the hackney carriages were affectionately known around Glasgow, I met another taxi driver who was a piper and we used to meet up in the early hours of the morning in the Universal Garage in Alexandra Parade, not far from the city centre, and have a tune or two on the practice chanter.

This other driver was from Skye and his name was Bob McSween. After a few months we got to know each other pretty well. One night when we met for a tune he told me that he had been approached by another cabbie who had asked him, ‘how much is a set of pipes worth?’

He was intrigued and said he would need to see them before he could suggest a value. The guy didn’t mention where he got them.

Round about this time my grandmother had a home-help who came in once a week. The carer was the mother of some pipers I knew – John and Finlay MacLennan, formerly of the 214 BB and Red Hackle.

214 BB pipers in 1977. Finlay MacLennan is front left and Donald John standing far right

Mrs McLennan told my grandmother that one of the boys had taken a taxi home one night and had left his pipes ‘as security’ in the back of the taxi while he went up to the house to get money from his parents to pay his fare. When he came back down the taxi, pipes and all, had gone.

This story filtered back to me through my grandmother and parents and I immediately knew where this driver had got the pipes that he wanted valued. I met up with Bob McSween and we shared our indignation at what had happened. We knew the culprit and hatched a plan…

Bob was to meet the ‘how much are pipes worth’ driver and issue him with an ultimatum – ‘You will take the pipes back to this young man or you will be reported to the police. You will lose your taxi licence, your job and your livelihood unless you do so within the next 12 hours.’

Bob carried out the plan to a tee. The next thing we heard was that this driver had returned to the MacLennan flat which address he remembered, knocked on the door, handed over the pipes and said, ‘You left these in the back of the cab!’

Thankfully a happy ending but due entirely to a series of lucky coincidences. Pipers, keep your pipes with you at all times!

  • Tom Johnstone is veteran of several pipe bands including Muirhead and Sons, British Caledonian Airways and Rolls Royce. During his playing career he was also a successful solo piper. He is currently a regular judge at solo piping competitions and is the Scottish Organiser for the Festival Interceltique in Lorient.

3 thoughts on “A Glasgow Taxi, A Stolen Set of Pipes and a Lucky Coincidence

  1. The loss or theft of your bagpipe is a traumatic experience. I was in the Territorial Army Pipe Band of the 11th Seaforth Highlanders in the 1960s by which time the regular battalion had merged with the Cameron Highlanders, a sad time for those involved, both the Seaforths and Camerons being regarded as family regiments. However, to the case in point. During a visit to the Fort, Fort George, Inverness-shire, with the band, there were a few of us required to attend the Sergeants’ Mess to play some tunes. We got all dressed up to the satisfaction of the Pipe Major, the late John Riach. He was known as ‘Carra’, a name that ‘big’ Donald MacLean gave him. Six of us attended the job. We played our tunes and when finished were invited to have refreshments – and this was graciously accepted. There was an ante room nearby and we all put our pipes on a table while we went and consumed the liquor. On completion we all returned to the room to collect our pipes and, horror of horrors, mine was missing. When I say my bagpipe, it was really my father’s. He’d loaned it to me. (I did not have a bagpipe of my own until I was about 38 years of age, borrowing most of the time from my brother the later Hugh Watson, Dingwall.) Pipers can imagine my horror at my father’s bagpipe being missing and indeed stolen. Panic set in and the RSM who was at the Mess approached and I suppose I was quite angry and upset at the situation and said things which were not very respectful to this man, an ex-Cameron Highlander. I was keen on reporting the matter to the civil police, but, of course, I was on Army soil and was told abruptly that it would be dealt with efficiently by the Army! Well I had a restless night in the Fort George billet. Next morning I was summoned and escorted to another area of the Fort and there on a sign post was the bagpipe hanging from it. For those who know the layout of the Fort the sign post was outside part of the complex and this nearby building was known to some as the Cabar Feidh Hostel or Hotel. It was in fact the premises used as the temporary jail. I still don’t know how it got there but I was relieved to have it back.
    Imagine my relief. I have rarely let my bagpipes out of my sight.

  2. I’m glad that this had a happy ending, for most don’t. I keep my instruments (pipes and fiddle) with me at all times. Related to this story is one involving the marvelous fiddler and cellist, Alastair Fraser and Natalie Haas. While in the states, Portland, Oregon. Someone (or more than one) stole their instruments and equipment from their rental vehicle. Other than the loss of their equipment and some clothes, it ended well with the instruments. Natalie got her cello back quickly when someone bought it from a thief and returned it to her. Alastair’s fiddle and bows ended up at a stringed instrument shop, where the staff recognized the instrument, bought it, got a hold of Alastair, who returned to retrieve it (and the shop cancelled the check they wrote to the thieves). Losing a loved instrument–whether due to theft, fire or other is a nightmare scenario. I’m glad that this one ended well.

  3. Interesting and amusing story from Tom Johnstone (we knew one another from our days in British Caledonian Airways Pipes & Drums). I remember staying overnight at the house that Tom built, along with a couple of other pipers from the Gatwick-based B.Cal. band: I think the occasion was when B.Cal. played at the Bob Hope Classic at Turnberry Golf Course (and our then P/M, Bob Richardson, played Bob Hope’s theme song, ‘Thanks for the Memory’ after the band had played him from the clubhouse to the first tee.) In those days, B.Cal. was THE band to belong to, for trips around the world ! Great memories !

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